The Radium Institute

Physical Decline

MEDICAL PROBLEMS BEGAN TO AFFLICT Curie in 1920, when she learned that she had a double cataract. Today we know that exposure to radiation can cause this disease, in which the lens of the eye becomes clouded. Her vision became so impaired that she had to write her lecture notes in huge letters and have her daughters guide her around. Only after four operations was she able again to carry out exacting lab procedures and drive a car.

Curie, like other researchers and industrialists of the day, was unclear about the health effects of exposure to radioactivity. In 1925 she participated in a commission of the French Academy of Medicine that recommended the use of lead screens and periodic tests of the blood cells of workers in industrial labs where radioactive materials were prepared.
advertisement for "Tho-Radia"
Advertisement for “Tho-Radia,” a beauty cream containing the radioactive materials Thorium and Radium. Many such nostrums were sold world-wide. Through the 1920s most people believed that low levels of radiation were beneficial--killing germs and stimulating growth. (Photo ACJC)
Although she did not believe that researchers were exposed to the same dangers as industrial workers, she required the Radium Institute staff to have their blood counts checked regularly. She also advised staff members to get regular exercise and fresh air, as if these precautions would protect them from radiation's harmful effects.


“Perhaps radium has something to do with these troubles, but it cannot be affirmed with certainty.”
--letter from Curie to her sister Bronya, November 1920

Curie at 1933 Solvay Congress
When Curie attended the Solvay Congress of 1933, she was no longer, as in 1911, the only woman in attendance. She is seated here to Langevin's left.

SOME DAYS SHE WAS TOO SICK TO GO TO THE LAB. On those days she worked at home on the manuscript of her book Radioactivity, which would be published posthumously in 1935. At first her regimen of diet and exercise worked. Yet her health continued to deteriorate. Over the Easter holiday of 1934, she took a last trip with her sister Bronya, during which she paid a final visit to her brother-in-law Jacques Curie. In May she went home sick from the lab in mid-afternoon and never returned.

“In the event of my death I give to the Radium Institute, of Paris, for exclusive use in the Curie laboratory, the gram of radium given to me by the Executive Committee of Women of the Marie Curie Radium Fund...”

busts of the Curies
Today busts of Marie and Pierre Curie stand in the garden of the Radium Institute, now home to the Curie Museum.
None of the specialists who examined Curie could diagnose her problem. Suspecting tuberculosis, several advised a stay at a sanatorium in Switzerland. A medical expert from Geneva finally diagnosed a blood disorder for which there was no cure. She died on July 4, 1934. “The disease was an aplastic pernicious anemia of rapid, feverish development,” the sanatorium director reported. “The bone marrow did not react, probably because it had been injured by a long accumulation of radiations.”
CURIE WAS BURIED TWICE On July 6, 1934, she was interred in the same cemetery in Sceaux where her in-laws and Pierre lay. Over 60 years later the remains of Pierre and Marie Curie were re-interred in France's national mausoleum, the Panthéon, in Paris. Marie Curie thus became the first woman whose own accomplishments earned her the right to rest for eternity alongside France's most eminent men.

reinterment of Curies
During the reinterment of Pierre and Marie Curie at the Panthéon, the president of France said, “As the country bows before her ashes...I form the wish, in the name of France, that everywhere in the world the equality of the rights of women and men might progress.”


“By transferring these ashes of Pierre and Marie Curie into the sanctuary of our collective memory, France not only performs an act of recognition, it also affirms a faith in science, in research, and its respect for those who dedicate themselves to science, just as Pierre and Marie Curie dedicated their energies and their lives to science.”

--President François Mitterand at the Panthéon, April 1995

Next:
Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie

© 2000 - American Institute of Physics